In which Robin actually learns something important.
Recently, a professor made an ill-judged remark about women at a conference about the Haskell programming language. Tim Chevalier blogged a criticism of the comment as sexist and off-putting to women thinking of going into Haskell or computing. That was when I made a stupid mistake. I tweeted to Tim that I thought the professor’s comment was “acceptable”, and then debated the issue and follow-on issues for several days online on Twitter and Reddit, before finally realising I had to write this blog post. (Tim has since posted a much longer version which I think is much better, so if you saw the first blog post and, like me, weren’t totally convinced, go read that one. You really should, if you are such a person, on both moral and pragmatic grounds! And try not to let anything which may seem too strident or comments which you may strongly disagree with, detract from keeping in mind the original complaint, which is perfectly sound, as I’ll argue below.)
Why did it take so long? Well, part of the reason is to do with the fact that I am a member of a group – which is to say, men, or to put it perhaps more accurately, white Western adults, or perhaps it would be even better to say human beings – which has a tendency to solidify and double down on their views in the face of criticism that they initially perceive as unjustified, highly abrasive, or ganging-up. That is not to say that they were necessarily unjustified, just that at the time, I perceived some of them as such. Another reason is that I have a job in the private sector and wasn’t particularly motivated to read what I just thought would be “more of the same, albeit possibly more radical”, in what little time I had left after spending time with my wife, reading and replying to tweets and reading and replying to reddit comments. Yet another reason is that I didn’t agree with everything that was said in the ensuing discussions (see the end of this post for an attempt at conciliation).
And psychologically, it’s sometimes much easier to blame and rail against others, even if those complaints may happen to be tangential, than to accept that you might have been wrong, in a morally significant way. Come on, don’t say you haven’t been there. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Of course, these tendencies – and indeed many of the abstract argumentative tropes that can be identified in the arguments that result – are not specific to discussions about feminism! They are general issues that occur in all sorts of human interactions, especially domestic ones, where you can’t just instantly block someone like you can on Twitter. Well, you can at least request a cooling-off period, which may be a good idea in such a situation.
The (apparently) offhand comment the professor made was unacceptable not only for the obvious reason that it did actually offend some women – and as I said myself during the course of the Twitter discussion I was involved in, women get to define what is sexist, not men. This should be enough – fundamentally, in a sense, you can stop reading right there. But if you want to read on: It was also unacceptable because:
- Anyone who supervises PhD students, as a professor does, is probably going to be supervising them directly for three or four years, or even more. Also, PhD students don’t receive a lot of money (on the grounds that they are undertaking a course of study from which they will benefit rather than doing a job), and they do have the option of applying for a job in industry instead. It is therefore incumbent on PhD supervisors not to drive away potential students with unwise remarks, and not to start the supervisory relationship on the wrong footing by saying anything that could lead to a suspicion that “This is a creepy person who says or thinks things like this all the time.” The latter is sadly not unheard of in academia. Now, before any sceptics of feminism get angry at me, I’m not making the claim (which would be totally ridiculous, especially coming from me) that there’s something wrong with being sexually attracted to women. There is a distinction to be drawn between being appreciative of the opposite or indeed same sex, and behaving in a way which is widely viewed as creepy or taking advantage of your students.
- Professors have an obligation to set a good example, to more junior staff and to students, of how to behave professionally and how to market the university environment appropriately. I don’t think this is controversial at all, as a general principle of conduct. (I don’t at all mean to imply that professors should not criticise the university environment, of course – that would be a grave encroachment upon academic freedom – only that if they intend to market the university environment, they should on pragmatic grounds take into account how their comments are likely to be received.)
Points 1 and 2 would probably have been obvious, perhaps too obvious or even secondary to consider mentioning, to many women encountering the professor’s comments. But personally, as a no doubt fairly typical man, never having been the target of sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual comments from an authority figure, they didn’t occur to me in the initial heat of the moment, when – as I’ve already said – I posted a stupid tweet.
You can find more arguments in the Reddit comments for the original blog post. I wouldn’t want anyone to come away from this without realising the Haskell community had strongly publicly disapproved of these remarks, albeit belatedly. For which we, or rather they (because I’m not really actively part of the Haskell community at the moment) have Tim to thank.
I would therefore like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone affected by sexism who was offended by that particular hasty, thoughtless tweet of mine. I’m sorry. And I won’t claim that any statement relating specifically to women is “acceptable” or “OK to say” or anything like that without first listening to those who it affects, again. And if I ever do, you have my full permission to admonish me and mention this very blog post right away. Because, that would be hypocritical of me, and I don’t actually want to be a hypocrite, nor to morally go backwards. Indeed, I want to morally go forwards. Shouldn’t we all want that – those of us who have some time in our lives to think about self-improvement and who aren’t moral saints, at least? (Anyone who thinks I shouldn’t have apologised, should think about that previous question.)
This series of events has also caused me to reassess my general attitude of “just go ahead and tweet it, you can clarify or discuss or retract later if needed”. (An attitude which may have been influenced by (a) an acquaintance I respect who advised me not to care about offending people on Twitter, (b) a male feminist who strongly implied to me that it was actually patronising to withhold a tweet because it might offend someone.) I thought of bleating that this thoughtlessness was uncharacteristic of me, but unfortunately of late it actually isn’t. Just because you only have 140 characters, doesn’t mean you have to spend 140 milliseconds thinking about a tweet before writing it. That doesn’t mean that you have to ponder onerously every retweet of a kitten picture, but… just remember the internet really is serious business sometimes (no joke). Yes, I am talking to myself, thanks for asking – but also to anyone else who is a bit like me who may be reading this.
So, as a man who at some point in time had an incorrect opinion, I obviously had a choice. I didn’t need to push my ill-founded opinion out there assertively and wait to be educated – as if this was some high-school debating society – I could have waited for it to happen naturally. That might not have happened any time soon had I ignored the discussion entirely (side note: in many things, such as online polls, we forget about all the people who don’t participate or don’t notice and we get a biased perception of reality as a result), but one good way to stimulate discussion about something is to submit a blog post to a relevant, active subreddit on Reddit and then come back and read the discussion later – ideally at least 24 hours later. It’s a bit hit and miss, especially these days, but out-of-the-ordinary / controversial things are good to spark discussion.
All that said, I would like to re-emphasise my call for us all to look for and support or engage in diverse approaches towards trying to increase the number of women – and people generally – in IT, based on learning about and understanding the multiple and varied reasons why many women (and many people generally) don’t end up in IT, or don’t stay in IT when they get there. That is, it’s not all about off-colour remarks like this in the adult world – it also has to do with issues occurring much earlier, attitudes and preferences of teenage girls, and so on. I’ll stop there, before I offend anyone again.
Comments welcome, but comments that make me go “OMG, how could you say that!” may be deleted.